By William Wolf


David Cronenberg’s suspenseful new film “Eastern Promises,” a resounding hit at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival and winner of the Festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award, is now available to the public in general release and is likely to generate further excitement. Extremely well directed and acted, “Eastern Promises” delves into the shadowy world of Russian mafia dealings in London, involving prostitution and murder. It will come as no surprise that Cronenberg has provided a bloody hand-to-hand combat fight scene capable of eliciting both awe and wincing.

Viggo Mortensen is both charismatic and enigmatic as Nikolai, a ruthless employee of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who has a kindly demeanor on the surface as the owner of a Russian restaurant, but is the vicious head of a group of Russian gangsters whose loyalties are defined by their tattoos. He has a son Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is a nasty piece of work, but ineffectual and jealous.

The astute screenplay, written by Steve Knight, leads the lovely Naomi Watts as Anna, a midwife, into this evil and dangerous lair as a result of the birth of a baby to a woman who dies in the process and is revealed to have been an abused prostitute in the gang’s clutches. Anna wants to see that the baby is raised decently, but Semyon wants to be sure that the baby is exterminated so there is no chance of exposing who its father is. Noted Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski makes an impressive actor as Anna’s irascible, knowing uncle.

Mortensen, it turns out, has a decent streak as well as his killer streak, which gives the role a sympathetic edge despite his ties. When he is singled out for a hit, the situation leads to a steam room in a public bath, where he is faced with vicious killers. The battle royal that ensues has the added twist of Mortensen having to fight for his life in the nude. The struggle is extremely and logically violent, with one blow a particularly wicked one.

One can’t say the violence is gratuitous, given the situation, but it does add color to the film and keep up Cronenberg’s reputation for serving strong scenes. Basically, “Eastern Promises” is a taut, well-told yarn, with the cast getting the opportunity to make a strong impression and keep an audience in its grip. A Focus Features release.


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